You wouldn't expect a conventional historical novel from David Mitchell, the author of postmodern works like 2004's Cloud Atlas. And while The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet seems at first to be a chronological account of life on a Dutch trading post just off the coast of Nagasaki at the turn of the 19th century, Mitchell's precocious and restless imagination is not so easily contained. He channel-surfs between genres, introducing elements of the romance, the thriller, the war novel, and the novel of ideas. He sketches a diverse cast of characters, from traders and sailors to samurai and translators, often providing distinct dialects and backstories for each.
The plot nominally centers on Jacob de Zoet, a junior clerk for the Dutch East Indies Company's Japanese operation who arrives with the goal of making a quick fortune and then returning to his fiancée in Amsterdam. Jacob is a bit of a prig, the son of a Calvinist preacher who diligently exposes the rampant corruption of his peers, but who finds himself drawn to Orito, a Japanese midwife with a burn-scarred face. Their courtship is thwarted, of course, and turns out to occupy far less of the novel than you initially expect. In fact, our hero disappears for vast stretches of the book so that Mitchell can explore other aspects of the insular world of Edo-era Japan: the Magistracy, the closet Christians, the debt-laden samurai families, the Dutch traders, and the non-Europeans whom the Dutch tended to dismiss as subhuman.
Mitchell writes with erudition and wit, but not a great deal of subtlety: It's far too easy to distinguish the bad guys from the good (the latter tend to have anachronistically enlightened attitudes toward women and people outside their race). And despite some magnificent narrative set pieces, like a breathless raid on a Shinto convent where Orito is held captive, the book feels diffuse, with too little forward momentum. Japan may be the land of one thousand autumns, but Mitchell sometimes seems intent on raking the leaves of every last one. B–